From the age of 14 into adulthood, Mark Tewksbury spent countless hours in the University of Calgary pool.
While he swam thousands of training laps, Deryk Snelling paced on the deck.
“He would walk back and forth and you never knew if he was watching you or not,” Mr. Tewksbury said. “You’d just always have your game on.”
Mr. Snelling moulded Mr. Tewksbury into an Olympic gold medalist, coaching him at the youth, university and international levels. Mr. Tewskbury won the 100-metre backstroke in Barcelona in 1992 with an Olympic-record time and captured three medals altogether while competing in two Games.
“[He] pushed really hard – and I pushed back,” said Mr. Tewksbury, who set seven world records. “We had a terrifically challenging relationship.”
Mr. Tewksbury was one of many outstanding Canadian swimmers coached by Mr. Snelling, who died on Sept. 4 at the age of 88 of pneumonia and congestive heart failure at his home in Nanoose Bay, B.C. Mr. Snelling guided dozens of swimmers – male and female – to Olympic berths. He enabled Canada to capture 21 Olympic medals while transforming the country into a swimming powerhouse between the late 1960s and 1990s.
Mr. Snelling was a six-time Canadian Olympic team coach, serving as the head coach four times. His swimmers also garnered hundreds of medals at local, national and international competitions. He was named a member of the Order of Canada and inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and several other shrines.
“Deryk believed in himself so much, you couldn’t help but believe in yourself following him,” Mr. Tewskbury said.
Tom Ponting, another University of Calgary alumnus, who won three Olympic medals and competed in three Games, said Mr. Snelling enabled him to catch up to his self-belief after failing to qualify for national championships.
“His willingness to take me under his tutelage, that was my career,” said Mr. Ponting, who set three world records. “Without that, I don’t have a career, so I’m indebted to him for that.”
Mr. Ponting, now the Charlottetown Bluephins head coach, is also grateful to Mr. Snelling for launching his three-decade coaching career at the University of Calgary.
“There was just no way, when I retired [as a swimmer], that I wanted to be involved with coaching and getting up at 4:30 in the morning, and spending all my weekends on the pool deck,” Mr. Ponting said. “But he showed me that, actually, I did like it.”
Deryk Sydney Snelling was born July 22, 1933, in Darwen, England, the eldest of five children of Sydney Snelling and Edith Elizabeth (née Taylor) Snelling. Sydney Snelling owned and operated several businesses, including 14 grocery stores, a flour mill and print shop. He also flew and built planes, among other activities. When not busy with the children, Edith Snelling worked in a bar.
Deryk Snelling started swimming at school and won the 1951 British breaststroke title – but was bypassed for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics owing to an arbitrary selection system. During compulsory military duty as a teen, he became a swim trainer – sometimes for 200 soldiers at a time – and developed an itch for coaching. Disenchanted with postarmy employment as a factory worker, he began giving swim lessons to small children and advising older youngsters on techniques. He then landed a pool guard job in Southampton, where he amalgamated two organizations and launched a competitive club in 1960.
In 1966, he took his top swimmers to the United States, returned home wanting to move to California, and put out job feelers. A middle-of-the-night phone call led to a position in Vancouver – which he thought was near California. He went on to lead the Canadian Dolphin Swim Club in Vancouver, the Etobicoke Swim Club in Ontario, and youth and varsity-team programs at the University of Calgary.
“Everywhere he went, he managed to build a really strong team – a dynasty – that has aged very well,” Mr. Ponting said.
Seeing Mr. Snelling’s example, other groups across Canada built powerhouse club and university programs as national team prospects chose to stay home instead of accepting U.S. scholarships.
“He created a world of possibilities and he created a Canadian swimming scene where we could be among the best in the world,” said Pierre Lafontaine, a former Swimming Canada CEO and national team director.
Mr. Lafontaine served as a University of Calgary assistant coach between 1980 and 1984, living with Mr. Snelling’s family for about a year, and later hired him to train coaches and identify top young swimmers. He called Mr. Snelling, who served as the best man at his wedding, “a life mentor.”
“He made a difference to a lot of people,” Mr. Lafontaine said.
While coaching at the local and university levels, Mr. Snelling also served with Canadian national and Olympic squads.
“He was able to create the whole athlete, the psychology side as well as the physical side,” said Lisa Dixon-Wells, a former University of Calgary and Canadian national team swimmer. The Calgary native rejected three U.S. scholarship offers and stayed in her hometown when Mr. Snelling took the Dinos’ helm in 1980.
Now a Masters swimmer, Ms. Dixon-Wells credits him with helping her maintain a long love for swimming after she contracted mononucleosis in 1983 and its long-lingering effects derailed her 1984 Olympic hopes.
“He brought me out of my downward spiral and dislike of swimming because I couldn’t perform to the same level,” she said.
Mr. Ponting said Mr. Snelling was “like a second dad” to young swimmers who spent 35 to 40 hours a week with him, savouring his motivational speeches. But Mr. Snelling did not give pep talks at home.
“He wasn’t that sort of a parent,” said his daughter, Leslie Snelling Scabar. “Both my parents tended to lead by example more than by giving advice.”
Despite his heavy workload and frequent travel, Mr. Snelling never missed her “milestone events.”
“If he wasn’t actually coaching, he was working from home,” she said. “If you needed anything, he was always there, which was kind of nice – unless he was in another country.”
Between 1996 and 2000, he headed the British swim team and coached in his seventh Olympics. He and his wife, Laura (née Entwistle) Snelling, moved to Nanoose Bay from England following the 2000 Sydney Games. He spent the next 21 years formally and informally mentoring Canadian coaches.
“He was still doing that until his last days,” Ms. Snelling Scabar said.
Mr. Snelling was predeceased by Laura, his wife of 65 years. He leaves his daughter, sons Peter and Paul Snelling, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.